Dr. Van Vliet likes to make Dogmatics practical by introducing pastoral situations that are related to the material we’re covering. The more controversial, the better. Today there was a discussion dealing with a situation that most people in conservative Reformed churches would recognize: a young man, for example, has been attending another church because he feels close to God there, a way he does not feel in his own church. He recognizes that this new church is somewhat weak doctrinally, but this is made up for by the newfound life in his relationship with the Lord. How, then, should we as pastors apply ourselves here? As you can imagine, it was an interesting discussion and a number of good points were made. But I don’t intend here to reproduce the discussion. Rather, I want to use it as a window into my personal life, springboard from there to the current Obamacare disaster, segue into the humanities, and then tumble somewhat ungracefully into some pontificating on my conclusions from it all.
First, some brief personal history. I was once the young man in the above situation. Many years ago, unmarried and unbearded, I spent some time denominationally abroad. In fact, after a couple years abroad I withdrew from the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church, citing as my reasons what I perceived to be the lack of genuine faith in my own church, and the very genuine abundance of faith I found in the new church. Yes, there were other reasons; and even today as I reflect back I am still unable to fully understand everything that went on within my heart, deceitful as it is above all things. But those were the reasons I put down in the letter of withdrawal I wrote to the consistory. Perhaps one day, in an Augustinian attempt to sanctify my memory, I will write a book on those expatriate years. But here I will keep it short.
I eventually came back to the Abbotsford Can Ref church, having undergone a radical shift in my thinking. Nothing in the church had changed. There was the same pastor, the same people, the same organ, the same everything. Yet it was as though all the grey that I had once seen there was now bursting like a sunrise, and I knew that I had been forever changed. God in his good grace gave me the privilege of experiencing everything our church had to offer as though it were the first time I was encountering it. The preaching, the singing, the community – all were fresh and alive and wonderful. In fact, it was such a shocking reversal of perception that my poor emotions took a couple years to sort themselves out. And that’s as personal as this will get.
As the mental and emotional homecoming dust was settling for good, two things happened. I got married and Barack Obama got elected. Only one of those was truly wonderful, but unfortunately it’s the latter that’s more significant here. It’s no secret anymore that Obama got elected on, as one of the contemporary masters of English prose, Mark Steyn, has put it, “gaseous uplift.” But Obama’s administration has ridden that wave of hot air and nonsense from one scandal to the next, all the while keeping his popularity mostly intact. Only now, as the painful reality of Obamacare sinks into the American people, is his popularity finally taking a nosedive.
The reason that all this matters to this post is because of something Kathleen Sebelius mentioned today. She’s the director of the U.S. government’s Health and Human Services department; which means she’s also the rather unpleasant, nay, severe face of Obamacare. She spoke today in an interview of the urgency “to change the narrative and get people connected with the coverage they need.” That changing the narrative business is both a big deal to Obama’s administration, and also the heart of what I’m driving at in this post. You see, Obama’s popularity has largely been the result of the narrative, that is, the stories that have been told about him. When he was elected for the first time in 2008 he was hailed as a hero who had come to deliver those God- and gun-clinging Americans from the dark ages. Bush, of course, was the villain. That story was told in so many different ways, from Hollywood, to the newspapers, to pop stars, to the books on the New York Times best sellers list, that it produced enough momentum to keep a mostly poor presidency afloat into a second term. It has been one of the highest priorities for the administration to keep that narrative going; which is why when something like Obamacare changes the narrative for the worse, making Obama look inept, someone like Sebelius is out there to change it back.
All of which is to point out the importance of telling the right stories. One of my history professors at UFV recounted to us her experience of having seen a cannonball that had been fired in one of Canadian history’s more interesting episodes, the rebellion of 1837. The cannonball was in someone’s private collection in Montreal and was mounted on a piece of wood. The shiny plaque on the front said, “Fired by the patriots in 1837.” But if you turned the wooden support around, there was a faded plaque on the back that said, “Fired by the rebels in 1837.” The same cannonball fired from the same cannon by the same people was either a symbol of patriotism or a symbol of rebellion, depending on whose museum housed the cannonball.
It’s quite true that many conservative, religious people who attend post-secondary institutions enroll in the business program, or in a trades program, or in some other practically-minded course. But I have a prayer that God’s people would once again flood the humanities departments, and take them back from the ungodly and rather outlandish people who currently run the show. For it’s the people who graduate from humanities programs that often go on to become teachers, novelists, screenwriters, artists, and all manner of sundry shapers of the cultural consciousness. They’re the ones who tell you and your children how to judge the world, who the heroes are and who the villains are. And indeed, I am only one small voice in a long line of Christian men and women who have voiced these concerns, many of whom have been doing so for decades, and some of whom actually done something about it.
So there’s that broad prayer, but I also have a more narrow one, one that leads me back to both the beginning and the end of this post. What are the stories that we tell ourselves about our particular church? The story I once told myself was that it was a place of spiritual repression, even spiritual death. And too often, I think, we grant as much. I’ve heard it said that sure, we’ve got the doctrine, but what a lot of those other churches have is the enthusiasm. We’ve got the finer points nailed down, but they’ve got all the heart.
Well, I no longer accept that narrative. In the first place, it was shattered in my own heart and mind years ago. In the second place, there are roughly 17,000 people in the Canadian Reformed churches, an inordinate number of whom are deeply in love with the gospel and want to share it with others; far too many, in fact, for me to hold that our churches are lacking in spirituality and emotional depth. This isn’t to deny that there are certain problems characteristic of the descendants of northern European peasant folk. Of course, we are sinners on the ever-thorny path of sanctification.
But I do think it’s time we started telling ourselves some new stories. We need to “change the narrative” from one that is shaped by our weaknesses to one that is instead rooted in the abundant work of the gospel that God has poured out in our churches for decades. We are filled to the rafters with beautiful things, from our music to our confessions, and if the people aren’t always worthy of a heroic epic, the traditions handed down to us surely are. And if what we have is “better” than other churches, it’s better insofar as we’re like kids on a hike who’ve reached the peak first, and who’ve run back down to tell the others just how incredible the world looks from 10,000 feet. No one’s going to tell those kids to stop being dull, and you’d be even more hard-pressed to think of them as being “insular.”
So I hope the plaque that describes our churches as being doctrinally sound but boring and spiritually tepid becomes the faded plaque on the back that no one ever sees anymore; and that the new shiny one instead reveals how much the Spirit has blessed us, and how much he wants us to smother our broken world with our particular brand of truly beautiful goodness.